A Long Way From Home

SOU student starts an NGO and raises funds to help Guatemala’s children

By Jennifer Margulis
Tidings Correspondent

Sporting black cowboy boots, jeans and a white button-down shirt, 29-year-old Matthew “Mateo” Paneitz doesn’t look like the kind of guy you would want to hold up at gunpoint. Six feet 2 inches tall, 220 pounds, with tan skin and worn hands from working outside, Paneitz towers over most of the Guatemalans with whom he lives and works.

His size notwithstanding, Paneitz says he has been robbed twice — most recently at the beginning of his trip back to Ashland from San Juan Comalapa, where he has started a nonprofit organization, Long Way Home, to help at-risk youngsters. A thief stole what Paneitz calls a “man purse,” an over-the-shoulder bag made of colorful native fabric. “He tried to steal my backpack,” Paneitz laughs, “but he wasn’t strong enough to lift it.” The other time was when he got lost on his way home from a friend’s. He asked a couple of guys for directions. They pointed him down a dark alley. “I walked back and they put a gun to my chest,” says Paneitz. They took all his money.

Children carry cinder blocks up a trail in Guatemala. During his service in the Peace Corps, Paneitz was struck by the fortitude with which the people he met there lived their sometimes difficult lives.
But when he explained in broken Spanish to the men who robbed him that he was lost and couldn’t find the bus stop, they walked him there, gave him back some of his money for bus fare, and bought him a Coke.

For Paneitz, unfazed by the robbery, the incident renewed his belief in the importance of his philanthropic work. “That was typical of Guatemalans,” he says. “I hate to say that they’re the kindest people I’ve ever met but they’re the kindest people I’ve ever met. They were robbing me … at the same time they were considerate.”

It was the kindness, fortitude, hard work and hardship of the poor people in Guatemala that struck Paneitz when he first began working there as a Peace Corps volunteer in April 2002. For the first time in his life, he saw people living in complete poverty. In Guatemala, women wash their clothes by hand on river rocks, children lead laden donkeys over the mountains while carrying spine-crushing bundles of firewood on their heads, and people find a way to farm land so steep many Americans couldn’t walk up it.

Paneitz, a native of Lufkin, Texas, worked for the Rural Youth-at-Risk Program, a pilot project of the Peace Corps that was later canceled. He started a soccer school with 40 children ages 8 to 12 and then expanded it into a youth soccer league in Comalapa and the surrounding villages with organized games and tournaments.

When Paneitz finished working in the Peace Corps, his brother Greg, who owns the Wooldridge Creek Winery and Vineyard, invited Matthew to come to Southern Oregon.

“Ashland had a university with an international studies program,” says Paneitz of his decision to move here. “I never explored the West Coast, and I wanted to live in a small town with a university and lots of nice people.”

But even as he pursued his undergraduate studies, Paneitz knew he’d left his heart in Guatemala and schemed about how to continue helping people there. He spent the weekends raising money for Long Way Home.

“I’ve spent every last moment I had figuring out how to do this, and one of them was splitting wood,” he says. “Some people wanted their land clear and the exchange was I got the wood for the free labor.” Collecting five cords of wood from Buffy and Steve Asher of Ashland, Paneitz was able to sell it at $200 a cord. What may seem like a modest sum in the U.S. can go a long way in Guatemala.

With the money from his hard labor in hand and a small group of dedicated development workers, including several former Peace Corps volunteers, a local NGO called Chuwi Tinamit and an international reforestation project, AIRES, Paneitz has begun implementing Long Way Home’s first project, “Proyecto Chimiya.” The project focuses on teaching organized sports and organic gardening to at-risk children and, according to Paneitz, the site for it includes a functioning organic garden, sports fields, a playground, a small forest preserve and a tree nursery.

Matthew “Mateo” Paneitz and employees of North Main Body Shop show off a newly restored 1973 Caprice Classic to be auctioned off to benefit Long Way Home, a nonprofit organization Panetitz founded to help at-risk youth in Guatemala.
Although he would be a senior Spanish major this year, Paneitz is taking time off to oversee Long Way Home’s first project. He divides his time between Comalapa, which he now calls home, and Ashland. There is another reason he is not currently in school. “Every last cent that I have is going towards the Long Way Home project,” Paneitz explains. “I’m not going to school right now because I can’t afford to.”

As part of the project, Paneitz is organizing a raffle of a 1973 Caprice Classic convertible. North Main Body Shop in Ashland is restoring the vehicle. “They also understand social responsibility and community development,” says Paneitz, who asked four other garages in town before finding this one, “and I am very, very grateful for their help.”

For more information about Long Way Home or to make a donation or buy a raffle ticket, visit www.longwayhomeinc.org, or contact Paneitz directly at [email protected].

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